Mouth Trumpet Lets You Toot Your Own Horn, but Without the Horn
Mouth Trumpet, a vocal technique first made popular during the Jazz Age, using the lips to imitate the sound of a trumpet, is seeing an unexpected revival. Photo: Courtesy of Victoria Vox
Jan. 5, 2015 6:54 p.m. ET
BALTIMORE—Side-by-side on folding chairs, Rick and Sonia Samuel pursed their lips and blew. With his face turning red, Mr. Samuel managed to produce a low-frequency buzzing. His wife’s mouth emitted noises several octaves higher.
“Sometimes people think that if they just blow, they’re going to produce music,” their instructor, Victoria Vox, explained to the group of about 20 people, gathered in a turn-of-the-century townhouse.
The Samuels, both in their 40s, were here to learn basic “mouth trumpet”—a vocal technique using the lips to imitate the sound of a trumpet, but without a trumpet. “It takes practice to get the tone and pitch,” said Ms. Vox, a professional singer-songwriter who led the group in a mouth-trumpet version of the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love.” “You have to sing, and you have to know what note to hit, too.”
Ms. Vox, who also plays ukulele and piano, is among a group of performers who are leading an unlikely revival of the mouth trumpet—also known as “vocal” or “lip” trumpet—even as they seek respect as serious musicians.
The 36-year-old, whose given name was Victoria Davitt, has held similar workshops across the country while touring to promote her eighth album, “Key,” which was nominated in March for an Independent Music Award. She wrote or co-wrote all of the songs in the album, many of which feature a real trumpet that Ms. Vox mimics onstage.
“It is singing and it is my voice,” she says. “It’s not just a joke.”
Certainly, mouth trumpet has a rich heritage in popular music, much of it linked to the ukulele craze of the 1920s. Some of the earliest known mouth-trumpet recordings were by Cliff “Ukelele Ike” Edwards, whose signature high-pitched vocal solos are a cross between a muted trumpet and the kind of improvised scat singing popularized by Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. Mouth-trumpet solos figure prominently in his biggest hits, including “Singin’ in the Rain,” which topped the U.S. pop charts for three weeks in 1929.
Singer songwriter Victoria Vox is leading a revival of the ‘mouth trumpet,’ a vocal technique popularized during the 1920s ukulele craze. Philip Edward Lubner
Another early mouth trumpeter was Harry Mills, the second youngest of the four Piqua, Ohio, Mills Brothers, who is said to have lost his kazoo at a talent show and played mouth trumpet on stage instead. By 1930, the Mills Brothers were stars on CBS radio, appearing regularly on the Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour with singer Rudy Vallee. Performers as varied as Dean Martin and the Bee Gees have cited Harry Mills as a musical influence.
But as the Jazz Age faded in the Depression, mouth trumpet lost its appeal in mainstream music; it could still be heard in folk, blues and other traditional songs.
Its current revival comes amid a broader rediscovery of early jazz, and the renewed popularity of the ukulele in recent years, says Vince Giordano, whose New York jazz band The Nighthawks recorded the Grammy-winning soundtrack for the 1920s-era HBO series “Boardwalk Empire.” He says good mouth trumpet, like good scat singing, is something of a lost art: “Not everyone can do it. You’ve got to be musical and have good pitch,” he says.
“There’s nothing worse than bad scatting, except maybe bad mouth trumpet,” says Bria Skonberg, co-founder of the New York Hot Jazz Festival, and a 2014 winner for Best Trumpet and Best Female Vocalist by Hot House Jazz Magazine. “Mouth trumpet may sound like a trumpet, but it’s really more like playing a kazoo,” Ms. Skonberg says, adding that she’s glad performers are learning to do it well again.
“The instant you do your solo, the audience has a bit of a chuckle,” says
Like singing, mimicking the sound of a trumpet ’takes practice to get the tone and pitch,’ Ms. Vox says. Scott Habicht
Earl Okin, a British musician who has performed mouth trumpet at London’s Royal Albert Hall, among other top venues. “But after a while they start to really listen.”
More are listening every day, to judge from some alternative-music charts. In October, Lawrence “Lipbone” Redding, a 47-year-old guitar player who taught himself mouth trumpet as a street busker, reached No. 9 on the JamBand charts with his latest album, “Esmeralda.” That put him ahead of such established singers as Ryan Adams, and the bands Primus and String Cheese Incident.
Mr. Redding, whose artistry can be heard on MTV’s “Jersey Shore” and A&E’s “Parking Wars,” among other television shows, describes his music as having a New Orleans lilt. He honed his mouth-trumpet skills over several years in New York’s ceramic-tiled subway stations in the 1990s, often late at night: “The acoustics are amazing. It’s like this beautifully tiled toilet that just sounds great,” he says, referring to the way the stations’ ceramic walls amplified his sound.
Rick Samuel says he and his wife, who both work in the health-care software industry, are huge fans of Ms. Vox. “We’ve gone to a number of her shows and it’s really amazing” that her sound so closely resembles that of an instrument, he says.
Jennifer Hug, another workshop attendee, first heard Ms. Vox a few years ago, when she performed mouth trumpet on a radio show. “I was completely fooled, I thought it was a real trumpet,” she adds.
Ms. Vox, who took trumpet lessons in high school and still plays, says she practices mouth trumpet by listening to great trumpet players, like Louis Armstrong and Chet Baker, copying their solos note for note. “If you tighten your lips just right, you can squeak out notes that are higher than you can sing,” she says. “Rolling the tongue can add texture to the sound, and you can add vibrato to longer notes,” she adds.
Her own rise to prominence began five years ago with an appearance on the “Tonight Show” with Jay Leno , where she performed a mouth-trumpet version of Europe’s 1986 hit song “The Final Countdown.” “When I take a musical solo with my mouth trumpet, for me it’s music,” she says, calling her style “family-friendly pop rock with folk and jazz influences.”
She says she thinks she gets what’s behind the mouth trumpet’s growing appeal. “Ultimately it’s singing, and maybe it’s like singing in the shower” in that everybody secretly does it, she adds: “There are more mouth trumpeters out there than we know.”
Write to Angus Loten at firstname.lastname@example.org